Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on December 20 2009.
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55
What a pretty poem this is! Such beautiful imagery… the prayer the expectant Mary offers to God in front of her cousin Elizabeth. Mary steps into Elizabeth’s home to pay a visit, and when Elizabeth hears her voice the child she is expecting leaps in her womb. Elizabeth is so overcome with joy and emotion she is taken over by the Holy Spirit who says through her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
This beautiful prayer-poem, called The Magnificat, is Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s gracious welcome to her younger relative.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
You would think that at a time like this they would sit down on the living room couch with a cup of tea and “compare notes on their appetites, their mood swings, their backaches and swelling feet.”1 But no, they realize this is something extraordinary that is happening to the both of them and it calls not for practical matters to be considered, but to wonder what in the world – not to mention heaven – they’ve gotten themselves into.
Still, put it on a Christmas card with the scene of a young woman kneeling in prayer – maybe put a little snow in the background for effect, though we all know it doesn’t snow in that part of the world – and you’ve got a classic.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…
To be honest, the sentiment Mary expresses in her song is a relief after dealing with the loud and vociferous railings of John the Baptist, who called people snakes and told them in no uncertain terms that unless they repented they were going to hell because they were spiritually dependent on the wrong things. Of course, the irony is that the baby leaping in Elizabeth’s womb is the one who will grow up to be that John, the wild and crazy evangelist who preached and baptized in the wilderness. Yes, it’s nice to come back to Mary on this final Sunday before Christmas… sweet little Mary with her beautiful and poetic prayer.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…
Then why does one commentator speak of Mary’s song in terms of its wildness and absurdity”?2 Wildness and absurdity? What’s he talking about? Wildness and absurdity?! Yes, wildness and absurdity.
You see, there’s more to The Magnificat, much more, than meets the eye or the ear. Listen again as I read a part of it to you. Perk up your ears, dig into the words, and give it your concentrated thought as if you are hearing it for the very first time. Mary goes on to say about God…
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Last month I was teaching an Advent lesson on hope to those who were here on Wednesday night. I encouraged everyone present to spend some time searching through their New Testament for subversive language. In fact, I received a call at home the next night from one of our church folk. “Randy, now what was it we were supposed to look for when we read our Bible?” That’s what he wanted to know. Subversion, I told him, subversion. Go to your thesaurus or dictionary. It means seditious or revolutionary, the kind of stuff that happens behind closed and locked doors, in secret so no one else will know what is being planned. That’s what subversion is, and you might just be surprised to find that your New Testament is chock full of it from the gospels through the epistles.
I apologize to those who were there that night, but I want to repeat this morning some of what I said because this prayer by sweet little expectant Mary is about as subversive as it gets. During that Wednesday night lesson I wrote on the board the following titles: Lord, Son of God, Bringer of Peace, Savior of the World, and Christ. When you hear those things, who do you think of? You think of Jesus, of course. We all do.
But not in the first century. Back then, if you were to start a conversation with those titles, the people to whom you would be talking would not think of a common carpenter from Nazareth, even one as gifted as Jesus obviously was. No, they would think of Caesar. Caesar had already laid claim to these titles, and for someone else to come along and either take them for himself, or to be referred to by others as Lord or Son of God, Bringer of Peace, Savior of the World, Christ… well, Caesar is going to start getting mighty nervous because Caesar is thinking he has a revolt on his hands.
And when Jesus came along talking about a new kingdom, well that took the cake. As far as the Roman leadership was concerned, there was only one kingdom: the Roman Empire. Talk like that can get you crucified.
So when Mary – sweet little Mary – starts talking about God showing strength with his arm, scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, sending the rich away empty and destitute… guess who’s strong and proud and powerful and rich? The Romans and the fat-cat Jewish element who cater to them. And Mary is rejoicing in their overthrow.
Now, with her song of subversion, sweet little Mary isn’t so sweet anymore. In fact, she has taken on the trappings of a terrorist. And that explains why the commentator I mentioned earlier describes Mary’s prayer as wild and absurd. If you tend to think that was then and this is now, you need to know that in the 1980s the government of Guatemala banned this song, or prayer, from being used in worship because they considered it to be politically dangerous and subversive.3
It wasn’t just Mary either, which is why I encouraged our folk to search their New Testaments for subversive language. Listen to the angel who visited Mary and announced to her that she was with child:
He will be great, and will be called
the Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne
of his ancestor David.
He will reign over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end.
No, no, no, that can’t be right. Caesar is the Most High. Everybody knows that. And Caesar will occupy the kingdom throne, and Caesar will reign forever, and of the Roman kingdom there will be no end.
In the latter part of the first century, after Jesus was gone, Christianity lived up against the Roman backdrop of violence and force. When people gave themselves to following Jesus the Nazarene, they did more than just give him their hearts, they gave him their necks as well. Following Jesus was a very, very dangerous thing to do. Yet, many did it gladly because they believed the final goal of divine/human reversal was worth it. And how much more politically subversive can you get than to talk about how people on the top, economically and politically, will be thrown down, while those on the bottom, the oppressed and poor, will be exalted? Sounds like a revolt to me. Toss that idea around in the halls of Congress and see what kind of reaction you get. It would put even the healthcare debate on the back burner!
These early followers of Jesus had no guarantee that what had been promised them was going to come to pass. They followed their hearts and they did what they felt God had called them to do. Many of them lost their lives because of it, so that people like you and me could know their Savior too. And because the first-century world was turned upside down, our world exists as it does today. For example, as one minister put it a number of years ago, today we name our sons Paul and our dogs Nero.4 That’s how much the world has changed.
Kinda messes around with your perspective about Christmas, too, doesn’t it? And if it doesn’t, it should. In fact, that which Christmas truly represents turned the first-century world topsy-turvy. I guess the question is, does it need to do that to our world as well?
If you think it can’t happen, consider this… The coming of the Messiah, the Christ, the One who will redeem Israel, is anticipated and proclaimed, not by archangels or high priests or emperors. No, this message comes to two marginalized, pregnant women – one young, poor, and unwed, the other far beyond the age to conceive – who meet in the hill country of an insignificant part of the world called Judea. While they celebrate their miraculous pregnancies, the baby leaps in the womb of the old woman, blessings are shared, astonishment is expressed, songs are sung.5
The Roman kingdom will be subverted, the mighty will be brought down and those on the bottom will be brought to the top. Topsy-turvy. And it all started with one woman far too old to have a baby and another who is unwed, both pregnant marginalized, and presumably poor. God chose to act through them. And you and I are here today because of that. So yes, I do think wild and absurd describe it pretty well.
You know what else I think? I think Mary sang this song, not only to her cousin Elizabeth, but to her son as well, maybe over and over. After all, where do you think Jesus got some of his ideas? Listen to this…
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,
for they will be filled.
The first shall be last,
and the last first.
Sound familiar? Where did Jesus get these revolutionary, topsy-turvy ideas… that God has no eternal intention of tolerating injustice and greed, that it saddens God when people are selfish or violent, that God is angry when rich people watch poor people go hungry and do nothing, that God will not allow the powerful to push around the weak simply because they can get away with it…? Where did Jesus get these ideas?6
Do you think that maybe he got them from his mama?
When it comes, not only to Christmas, but to the world in which you live, where do you get your ideas? If you are willing to risk it, look with fresh, new eyes at that book you have in your lap. It might just change your perspective. Better yet, it might just change your world and make everything – everything – topsy-turvy.
Lord, come to us, abide with us, even if it turns our world upside down. Find us faithful in serving you no matter what comes our way. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.